Today is the 48th anniversary of the release of The Beatles, better known as the White Album. To celebrate, here’s an outtake from the tumultuous recording sessions for that album, capturing “Revolution” as well as bits that would become “Revolution 9” before the mitosis of those two songs was complete. Note: it sounds better if you click on settings and set the speed to play at 1.25. And below, find our interview with Beatles fan and Didion biographer Tracy Daugherty from our debut issue!
The WHITE ALBUMS
A Conversation with Didion Biographer
By Jon Ross
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes at the beginning of her essay “The White Album.” Is the same true of the songs we sing? To waltz further with her lede: Does the princess caged in the consulate still shake it to the rock and roll station? Can the Candy Man pipe a ditty to jig us into the sea? The naked woman on the ledge of the sixteenth floor hears deadly blues that threatens to dance her into the abyss—unless she’s just go-going to be seen, protesting clothes, consulates, and cages. Behind her, the fireman-priest with multi-colored mirrors on his hobnail boots gives the lens a grin, shuffles to his own dissembling rag. We dance and sing less for the moral than for that swing, without which it don’t mean a thing. Right?
So if the essay is about stories, why the musical title? And why in particular does Didion use the nickname given to the Beatles’ eponymous double album?
“Why’d she name it ‘The White Album’?” Tracy Daugherty says. “I’ve never seen her address that in any of her interviews. The one mention she actually makes of the Beatles is to dismiss them—”
I had already heard about acid as a transitional stage and also about the Maharishi and even about Universal Love, and after a while it all sounded like Marmalade Skies to me. ~JD
“So she writes them off, but then she names the essay and the book The White Album.”
Curious, isn’t it?
Tracy Daugherty is the author of four novels, six story collections, two books of essays, and three literary biographies, including most recently, his acclaimed Joan Didion book, The Last Love Song. He’s also Oregon State University’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Creative Writing. His curly hair is raincloud-colored, eyebrows and mustache a bit unruly, rebellious, his eyes like habitable planets. We sit in his living room in Corvallis, Oregon, a big-eyed tabby named Willy watching us warily from his lap. There’s a record player on the coffee table, and a drum kit set up next to the baby grand piano in the front window nook.
He drops the needle on side one, track one of The BEATLES. The sound of jet engines screaming down. Willy is nonplussed, ears back.
The easy answer to our question is that both White Albums are collages, and both circle a moment of critical mass the world seemed to reach in 1968. The record album, officially titled The BEATLES, was released that year and quickly became known as “The White Album” for its plain white cover. Its thirty-one tracks are a kaleidoscope of clashing musical forms and moods—from music hall ditties to proto heavy metal—culminating in “Revolution 9,” a sound collage of field recordings, gnomic non sequiturs, screams, shouts, and sound effects that brings the album to a crashing, chaotic climax. Joan Didion’s “White Album” essay wasn’t published until 1979, but Didion signs it off 1968—1978. The essay knits together fragmentary reportage with trial transcripts, protest chants, a house blessing, Didion’s psychiatric evaluation from the summer of 1968, and a list of items to pack and wear when traveling for work. But setting these works side by side reveals a great deal more. Taken together, these White Albums illustrate how the techniques of collage transport us beyond the songs we dance to, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live—beyond, to the place where we actually live.
“A friend once told me that when the album came out, a radio station in Baton Rouge, his home town, was going to play the whole double record, live,” Tracy says. “So they put it on and started playing side one, track one, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ After about a minute the DJ pulled it and said, ‘Oh my God, this is Communism!’ Even at thirteen I was steeped enough in rock and roll to understand that the song was a parody of the Beach Boys. ‘California Girls,’ right? The lyrics signal, We’re doing wordplay, we’re making fun of the Beach Boys, and Georgia’s Always On My Mind. It’s a parody, but the DJ thought the Beatles had gone commie on us. That was part of the charm of the Beatles’ rebelliousness—it was a laughing, humorous revolt.
“But that jet plane screech that kicks it off,” he scratches Willy’s head, “and the undertow of the song–it does seem heavy to me, heavier than you’d expect of this jaunty kind of tune, weightier than the Beach Boys.”
This is perhaps the surprising thing that makes Tracy the best person to talk to about these White Albums: yes, Joyce Carol Oates endorsed him as “temperamentally, intellectually, and even stylistically matched” to Didion as his biography subject; but it also happens he’s a passionate, life-long Beatles fan.
“The reason the Beatles had such an effect on me, and why they continue to do so—I mean, I’m a sixty year old man, I should have outgrown this by now—I think the fact that I grew up in West Texas has a lot to do with it. The context was very important. This was a place where, if you were a boy you were expected to be crazy for football and pickup trucks. I’m simplifying, but not overly much. There was a lot of pressure to conform to the culture. Any artistic leanings, particularly in a boy, were really not encouraged, and were sometimes actively frowned upon. In that context, the Beatles offered the first contact with art in my life. To see these strange looking people, the sound, the fashion, the way they appeared and spoke, it was all different, it was new, it was exotic, and it came crashing in from the outside.
“This has been referenced by many others, but I do think it’s true–it was my experience–that the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show following so closely on JFK’s assassination made a huge impact. I was too young to really care about JFK, but I responded to the huge headlines in the paper, block letters, JFK KILLED. It was scary. I’d never seen newspapers look like that. And the TV shows, the cartoons were interrupted by these very somber news reports. I absorbed the emotion, that somber feeling. All the adults around me were glum for months. And these were not Kennedy fans, far from it. They were conservative in their politics. But it was a shock. It seemed the world had changed, something terrible had happened, which I could grasp. Then, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan! This burst of joy and energy packaged in such a way that shouted, Wow, it’s a whole new world. It felt like coming back to life.”
Context and juxtaposition. Cartoons and JFK KILLED and “Twist and Shout.” California girls scissored out, Moscow girls pasted in place. The princess in the consulate and a little girl stranded on a highway median. New meanings emerge—or meaning dissolves in aporia, irresolvable. On the turntable, the screaming jet gives way to lullaby, “Dear Prudence,” a flower growing up where the landing gear just scorched the tarmac. Willy likes this more, settles in, licks a paw.
“‘Dear Prudence’ is a plea to come out and play and enjoy the beauty,” Tracy says. “A lullaby with childlike imagery. But it also insinuates… I know you’re feeling bad; so am I; I don’t want to do this, either, but we have to come out and play, we have to. The music is pulling against the lyrics. And at the end, the drums get really heavy. They almost overwhelm the track. I didn’t know why at the time, but I could tell, This drum sound, these drums don’t belong in this song. I learned many years later that Ringo had left the band at that point. Paul did the drumming on this song. Now I can hear it clearly—this is not Ringo’s steady touch. So even in this essentially positive song, the undertow suggests the band is not together. The joy is forced. I could hear the discord even at thirteen.
“And yet maybe we could turn the tables and hear the album as an attempt to come together in the midst of chaos—to remain communal in spite of all the things that are tearing us apart. I mean, quite literally the band was tearing apart: Ringo had walked out, and George was leaving, and half the time the band didn’t record together in the same room. They didn’t like each other’s songs—Paul McCartney hated ‘Revolution 9’ and Lennon couldn’t stand ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.’ They weren’t writing together anymore, but there were moments when they were trying to bond as a band again in the midst of it all. So there’s a struggle, which, you know, you hear.
“And I feel a similar thing in Didion,” Tracy says. “She writes about being named Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times at a point when she could barely function. She gives us her psychiatric report. She talks about performing, projecting a public image and being lauded for her achievement at a time when she felt she could barely move. She’s not setting herself up as an authority, saying, I’ve diagnosed the problem and this is what it is. She’s saying, I’m just as trapped in this mess as you are. I don’t have a vantage point. Which is why she doesn’t tie the essay’s elements together, why it’s a collage of fragments rather than a tidy, nicely shaped piece. She’s no more capable of pulling things together than anyone else—but she’s still placing one sentence after the other. She’s performing on the page. She’s putting together the pieces of a narrative even as she’s saying I can’t do it anymore. It’s Beckett at the end of The Unnamable, you know—‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’
“As shapely as her sentences are, the fact that ‘The White Album’ essay doesn’t finally cohere—in traditional terms—suggests this struggle on her part. And I know from my research that the pieces in the essay were written at different times, over a period of years. They weren’t composed in the same frame of mind, with the same original goals or themes. She pulls them together in a way that makes them look as if they’re not patched in. But neither are they randomly collected. She is trying to shape this as a finished piece. The fact that, on some level, the essay feels random and undone fights Didion’s impulse toward unity. There’s that struggle going on, and like an abstract painter leaving the generating marks on the canvas, you see the strokes. You see the slashes on the canvas. The rough-draft gestures are not hidden, not erased or glossed over.”
The fragmentation of the work enacts the fragmentation of intent, the fragmentation in the psyche. The Beatles were falling apart, Joan Didion was falling apart. Collage paints the black cloud crossing John Lennon’s mind, the blue mist round his soul; it charts the “variety of defense mechanisms” from Joan Didion’s psychiatric report, “mechanisms which now seem inadequate to their task of controlling or containing an underlying psychotic process and are therefore in the process of failure.” On the turntable, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” marches cheerily in, a clown dancing in the orphic wake of “Glass Onion,” the manic following the depressive. Before side one ends, the psychotic will ensue:
Happiness is a warm, yes it is, guuuuuuuuuuun…
You know what Chekhov says about placing a gun on side one.
Here’s Willy’s sister Alice, up on the coffee table now, watching the record go round, round, round. She’s not a girl who misses much…
I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling. I suppose this period began around 1966 and continued until 1971. ~JD
In 1966, John Lennon declared the Beatles “more popular than Jesus,” a statement digested with minimal dyspepsia and tea and cakes on the other side of the pond. But it kicked off a firestorm of protest stateside—especially in the South. This was before The White Album. These were Revolver days, when Tracy was eleven, twelve years old.
“When John Lennon said we’re bigger than Jesus, the KKK in the South started burning Beatles records. I didn’t go that far, but as a young boy in West Texas, I was strongly encouraged to be a good Christian. I’d grown up going to a Methodist church, but then I got into Pentecostal rituals. I had a friend who was a Pentecostal—the holy rollers, we used to call them. They would put their hands on people and speak in tongues. I remember they would touch me and say they were going to heal me. I had a friend who broke one of my Santana records because it was ‘evil.’
“So, at around that time, I told my mother she could sell all my Beatles albums. I let her sell all my 45s at a garage sale for 99 cents each. Those discs would be worth a lot of money now. But I was going to change. I wasn’t just going to be a good Christian, I was going to be a fervent holy roller. So I turned away from the ‘evil’ Beatles. I thought it was the thing to do. I gave in to the culture.
“I don’t remember exactly what brought me back. I suspect it may have been hearing ‘Hey Jude’ on the radio—”
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders…
“—and thinking, Well, even if it’s evil, I like it. ‘Hey Jude’ with its infectious chorus–that happy hand-clapping–brought me back. And I remember when the song came out, preachers and other authority figures said we were being brainwashed by this repetitive chant. They’re hypnotizing us! And then the whole Paul is Dead thing–it certainly suggests fear: We’re absorbing subliminal messages from these subversive people! There are clues in the album covers! Manson certainly ran with this idea, later, with the whole ‘Helter Skelter’ business. There’s this sense of mass hysteria and magic being performed: making people behave against their will.”
There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’—this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it—was very much with us… A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. ~JD
“1968, that was the big year. The Tet Offensive—I remember quite well watching the war on television every night. My father would come home and turn on Walter Cronkite, and we’d sit there and watch Vietnam. Villages burning. I remember body bags, and I remember Walter Cronkite’s tone of voice changing. I didn’t understand ‘Tet Offensive’ and phrases like that, but I did grasp that Walter Cronkite was telling us, in so many words, This is a mess, this is a lost cause. And when the trustworthy figure you watch every night on TV starts to seem world- weary and haunted, you feel it.
“Then came the assassinations: Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy back to back. The galvanizing moment for me was the Democratic National Convention in August, seeing the riots in the streets—”
But when you talk about destruction,
don’t you know that you can count me
“—policemen taking clubs to citizens. That was the image that powerfully woke me. You know, our people are turning on our own. They’re clubbing people in the streets. I wasn’t responding politically. I wasn’t responding in terms of right and wrong or authority versus rebellion. It was a visceral recoil. Our people are beating up our people—everything’s just thrown out the window, all sense of order and rationality…”
I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968. ~JD
Tracy holds up the cover of his well-loved, original pressing of the album we’ve been listening to. “The BEATLES” is embossed just southeast of center; the pressing number stamped in the lower right.
“I do love the fact that the thing gets dirty. The whiteness gets soiled over time, inevitably,” Tracy says. In an age of mass production, the auratic survives. Alice, having been talked off the coffee table and onto the sofa rubs a corner of the album cover with her chin.
We consider the front cover more closely. “The band is erased,” Tracy points out. “There’s no picture, no band. They’re gone.” He opens the gatefold, showing the four black and white portraits of the band members. “You look at these pictures: Ringo resembles some 19th Century dandy. He’s like Oscar Wilde. Paul, the cute one, is raggedy, a little unkempt. This is not the way we were used to seeing Paul. And again, this is the Paul is Dead era. His portrait is closer-up than the rest, so he stands apart from the others. A death-clue! Lennon looks ghostly, so pale. The glasses give him an other-era feel. George is…George. It’s not a group portrait. Not at all. They’re all isolated from each other. They had to be conscious of the image they were projecting. What we see is disunity. The whole package is completely fragmented, like the disharmonious music on the discs. There are no longer the cuddly mop-tops on the cover. You open it up and you see four people who could have come from different time periods.
“I remember going into a Walgreens Drug Store in Midland, Texas to buy this copy of the album. I was thirteen. I had saved my money from mowing lawns, and I walked in and spilled all my coins on the counter to buy this double album, which cost a whopping $7.98 at the time. And the old woman behind the counter asked me, Is it worth it, son?
“Even then, I knew what that moment meant. She wasn’t just scolding me for spending my money in a way she disapproved of; she was making a judgment, questioning my life, my choices. I had my hair long and I was spending my money on a rock and roll album. It was a moment of minor rebellion. I was asserting a cultural identity different from what my surroundings insisted I embrace. I was very aware that I wasn’t just buying an album. And this followed the phase where I had accepted the dominant view that the Beatles were evil. Now I was acknowledging, you know, That’s nonsense; this is important to me.
“I was thinking about this the other day. At thirteen I was not a terribly rebellious child. My rebellions were all secretive, including—maybe even especially—the writing I did. My parents didn’t pay particular attention to the controversies, the bigger than Jesus stuff. For them it was all just bubble gum music. So they see me bring a Beatles album home and they think it’s the same old Beatles. But I take the record back to my room and put it on and it doesn’t sound like any Beatle album has ever sounded. That began a whole new phase of my relationship to the music, to what the music meant. At a time when I was returning to the Beatles after rejecting them for ‘moral’ reasons, and therefore questioning definitions of morality; in a period when it seemed the country was truly fragmenting, I could hear the music reflecting all that turmoil. It felt like I was plugged into something bigger than I’d ever thought of before.
“The very length of the album was daunting and thrilling. You felt you were going through something. Not just listening but encountering. Every song was so different. The songs took you through a range of emotions. You weren’t allowed to settle into any one feeling. There was also a sense that the band was demonstrating how versatile they were, trying all these various musical styles: vaudeville, country, early heavy metal, Paul’s chirpy ballads, the lullabies. They were showing off. You know, We can write any kind of song we want to write. We can do anything and everything. But the dark corollary to that was this: there’s no continuity, or if there is continuity, it’s a deeper, darker continuity than you expected. I could hear all of that.
“And there were genuinely spooky moments. ‘Cry Baby Cry,’ you know, make your mother sigh. A song about a séance and summoning ghosts. Harrison’s ‘Long, Long, Long,’ lyrically a simple love song, but it’s so slow, and then the drums come in, heavy and loud, completely what you would not expect. The song ends with this sound like wood cracking and a ghostly voice rising out of nowhere. I would listen to this music alone in my back bedroom with the lights out at night.
“Right before the sound collage, ‘Revolution 9,’ there’s an unnamed track. McCartney singing in a spooky, echoing voice—”
Can you take me back where I came from, Brother, can you take me back?
“And you can tell from the tone—there is no going back. The song answers itself. And then we go into something we’ve never heard on a Beatles album: car crashes and gunfire and babies screaming. From Paul’s spooky, elegiac fragment to this craziness. It’s one of the most powerful juxtapositions on the album.”
I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting room experience. ~JD
“Of all the things that happened in 1968–the assassinations, the war–why did the sight of cops beating people in the street remain the thing that galvanized me the most? Something about that moment awakened emotions in me that I’ve never gotten over. Anger at injustice, horror at what people are capable of doing.
“And then you listen to ‘Revolution 9’ and you think, Well, that’s our soundtrack. It’s like someone sticking a tape recorder out the window. You could not turn from the scenes of the riot, go back to your bedroom and put on a happy little poppy song and forget about it. You could not tell yourself, I can still dance to ‘She Loves You.’ You put on the Beatle record and the Beatle record sounds like the violence you just saw on TV. The music was infused with the smoke of the fires and the riots. There was no getting away. You can’t go back to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ You know, take me back, brother, but you can’t. You can’t go back. No more innocent distractions: the music was the documentary evidence of what was happening.”
The fragmentation of the work enacts the fragmentation of the world. Collage as a method of unfreezing the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience, as Didion describes it; separating the spectacle from the ideas and narrative lines we’ve habitually imposed to keep it tidy, discrete. Items in juxtaposition contaminate each other. “How can our world be ‘Revolution 9’ and also, simultaneously, ‘Martha My Dear,’ a sappy little love song sung to a dog?” Tracy says. “But it is. It’s the same world, and that’s frightening in and of itself. You can turn a corner and the world changes. Turn back and it alters again. ‘Martha My Dear’ is ‘Revolution 9’; the princess does consort with Charles Manson, and wow, what does that mean?”
“So it’s ten years later when Didion publishes her book,” Tracy says, edging forward to retrieve his copy of The White Album from the coffee table. Willy holds on, steadfast, a babe in arms. Alice has split again. She made a fool of everyone…
“By now the Beatles record has become known as ‘The White Album,’” Tracy continues, “so Didion knew what her title would signify. Just referencing the phrase would conjure a sense of chaos. Now, I didn’t know Joan Didion’s work in 1979. I remember being in a bookstore in Dallas, Texas, and I’m sure the only reason I pulled this book off the shelf was because of the title. And I recognized as I got into it that the first essay was about the 1960s. The writing grabbed me immediately. I’d not read anything like it. I had never read a piece of prose based around the principle of collage.
“On one level there’s simple linguistic collage: the medical language from the psychiatric report bumping up against the fairytale terms of the princess, the spiritual language, the talk of accidie. I think Didion very deliberately means to say these things are related. She’s saying, These areas we normally think are different—the spiritual world, the scientific world, always seen to be at odds—they are all equally part of our world. And each area of knowledge is experiencing a kind of malaise at this moment in history. On a micro-scale, this linguistic collage mirrors the larger scale of the essay.”
Images, events, scenes: the princess in the consulate, the woman on the ledge, the girl stranded on the highway median. Strangers at the door, teen hustlers on trial for murdering a movie star. Linda Kasabian testifying against Charles Manson. Everything was to teach me something. The Doors, bored in a recording studio. Huey Newton in jail. Breakfast with Eldridge Cleaver and his parole officer. Listening to “Wichita Lineman” in a rent-a-car and thinking Petals on a wet black bough. Riots on the San Francisco State College campus. Disorder was its own point. A phone call received while lazing by the pool: Sharon Tate dead on Cielo Drive. Picking out a dress for Linda Kasabian. Receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, but the name had no meaning, the diagnosis meant nothing.
“From the echo of the old fairytales we go to the child abandoned on the side of the highway by her parents, all in the same little riff. You think, What are these things doing together? Surely at some point she’s going to unify all these threads. But she never does. You’re left, first of all, with the feeling of fragmentation and chaos; and then the perception that all these objects, these experiences, these concepts carry equal weight in the world, and if these things are of the same world, of the same culture, they must spring from the same source somehow.”
Tracy thumbs the book open and flips pages, running his finger down the text. “If you look at what Didion’s doing on the page—she is performing some narrative tricks here, supplying a few connections. I’ll give you a little bit of order now and then, she’s saying—teasing us; I’ll give you a tiny scene at this point or a coherent list of objects, but in the next moment everything scatters. It’s similar to what we hear on the record: you want a happy, old-fashioned song? Okay, I’ll give you ‘Martha My Dear.’ But then we’re going to have a sound collage. Cars crashing through the window. Didion’s writing is like the Beatles asserting, We can do this, we can give you a country song, we can give you a vaudeville tune; we can do all of that, but the world has its own mix which we’re not going to ignore. Didion, similarly: I can give you a narrative, I can give you a scene, I can give you a description, but in the next minute everything is going to be undercut by Charles Manson or these crazy people breaking into a movie star’s house to kill him. What do you do with that? Parents abandon their kid on the highway—you can make a narrative, but can you make any sense of it? Those are two different things.”
And as with the Beatles, the forces tearing things apart are met by the effort to pull them back together:
“As you flip through the pages you notice that Didion italicizes her psychiatric evaluation, this diagnostic language; a page later, she italicizes excerpts from the trial transcript of the Ferguson brothers, the boys who killed Ramon Navarro. On a page after that, she italicizes a house blessing hanging in her husband’s mother’s home—God bless the corners of this house…
“These are the magic spells of our culture. They have authority. We trust medical diagnoses and medicines that are supposed to change our attitudes, our minds, our brains. We trust the law. Prayer. Songs and chants. Every few pages, Didion throws in an italicized passage, and your mind begins to stitch them together—they’re the same typographically, so they must be similar, right? They are spells that help us stagger through our days: lists of what to pack for a trip, medications, political truisms. A narrative impulse underlies what Didion is doing here. It doesn’t look narrative—these passages appear broken on the page—but they come at fairly regular intervals, so there’s a deliberate pacing to them. Didion is very conscious of that, narratively.
“She starts with the impulse, we tell ourselves stories. In a sense, she does tell us stories, one after another, but in another sense she doesn’t tell us anything at all. Nothing comes together. She says, I can do that, but I refuse. I’m going to dispel the magic that I know how to weave.”
To Pack and Wear:
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
“One theme binding all the things she’s talking about is performance. Regarding the list: She’s a pro, she’s ready to go at a moment’s notice. So even as she insists I’m paralyzed, she’s prepared to tackle the next assignment—
2 legal pads and pens
“Further, she suggests we’ve become a culture of spectacles—in our politics, in our various arts, and even in our transgressions. When Manson is arranging these mass murders, there’s a performance aspect to it. You know, he’s writing messages on the wall—from popular music, from the Beatles. ‘Helter Skelter.’ And we know Manson wanted to be a rock star. So even behind insane, psychopathic crimes now there’s a sense of performance. And the way the news media talked about Manson—I remember this clearly—that he was able to hypnotize these women, that he had magic power. He could make people do what he wanted them to do. It was mass hysteria, and he was in charge of it. That’s exactly the way newspeople talked about the Beatles. This frenetic music gets people moving their bodies in wicked ways—”
The associative leap replaces the causal chain. In this, the artist steps back, relinquishes the claim of mastery, dispels the magic she knows how to weave, enacts failure. This is a strategy for deconstructing authority, demystifying the spectacle. It turns on a light that shows us to be sitting in a white room. Is this where we find “Helter Skelter” written on the wall in blood?
I remember all the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised. ~JD
“That line has always struck me as…complicated,” Tracy says. “She’s talking about the unleashing of chaos, but then she says no one was surprised. That suggests a narrative movement slithering underneath the surface of events, something we were aware of all along–maybe we didn’t know we were aware of until it happened. This returns us to her first line, ‘We tell ourselves stories…’ She’s implying that perhaps there were graspable stories. Stories we did know. Again, it’s contradictory: on the one hand, the world seems to be falling apart, shocking us. On the other hand, we seem to have known all along what was transpiring. Or conversely, we think we know what’s happening, but in fact the pieces aren’t fitting and they’re obscuring the truth—until it happens, and then everything snaps back into place. There is this push/pull between order and chaos. There is this struggle. All along the connections were there. We just didn’t acknowledge them. You know, we knew, we weren’t surprised. That’s what fascinates me about Didion: on the surface, it’s all disorder and chaos and fragments, but she always pulls you right back and says, ‘There was this connection, there was this thing going on. I knew it.’
“The other curious thing about that passage—we were not surprised by the mass murders that occurred in our neighborhood . . . this suggests that not only was there a persistent narrative, but that the Manson killings were its inevitable endpoint. This is where we had to come. There was no avoiding it. Does that indicate a world view that finally does put faith in narratives? What looks like chaos and randomness is, in fact, inevitability?”
During the years when I found it necessary to revise the circuitry of my mind I discovered that I was no longer interested in whether the woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor jumped or did not jump, or in why. I was interested only in the picture of her in my mind: her hair incandescent in the floodlights, her bare toes curled inward on the stone ledge.
In this light all narrative was sentimental. In this light all connections were equally meaningful and equally senseless. ~JD
Half of what I say is meaningless
but I say it just to reach you…
“If the Beatles hadn’t let the world, let the chaos into their music, they would not have been authentic,” Tracy says. “I think Didion had that same feeling. It’s inauthentic to pretend that conventional narratives are going to tell us how to live any longer. It’s truer to say we have the impulse to tell stories, and we’re going to try to bring together what we can, but finally it would be false to say we’ve done it. So we leave the tale, the rough mix unfinished.
“And again, it’s very much like asking, Why is this old vaudeville song nestled up against this rock and roll number, followed by all this howling and screaming? Yes, okay, they all belong equally to our world; they’re all reference points by which people try to locate themselves. But when you combine them, the way they are mashed up on the Beatles’ White Album, in Joan Didion’s ‘White Album,’ combining them does not forge stronger connections. In fact, the combination undermines the whole—which I think mirrored the way the world felt to those artists at that time. These collages were not meant to forge stronger bonds between disparate areas of life; they were meant to say that everything is undermined by the same malaise right now. The writing and the music don’t help us understand anything. Certainly, Didion has insisted many times that writing does not help her. Naming something doesn’t really give us any control over it, you know.
“So that first line, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’—she doesn’t believe stories can do that, but she retains the narrative impulse. She doesn’t believe narrative has the power we ascribe to it, usually, but the impulse to weave narrative connections is present in us, unquestionably. You have the impulse, you give into it. What else are you going to do? You put the Beatles on the turntable, you’re still going to dance to them, even though they’re screaming scary things at you.
“Now, the question, I guess, has to do with that impulse. Why does Didion continue to publish when she says she is so paralyzed, she can barely think? If John Lennon is so full of accidie, or whatever you want to call it, if he is so depressed, why does he keep making records, you know? I mean, those are good questions. I can only refer to Beckett again: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. What else do you do? I am a performer, I am a writer, I don’t know what else to do. So this is what I will give you, but I can no longer pretend that it’s going to make sense.
“And they felt right to me—both White Albums. They captured the rhythms of their times. And I guess that’s what I’m looking for in writing. I don’t look to Joan Didion to give me a political ideology. I don’t look to her to give me spiritual answers, to make sense of our culture. What I appreciated and what I took into my body was how she caught the rhythm of the era. That’s exactly how it felt to be alive then. It’s right there in that prose. The tautness, the nervousness resonated with what I was feeling, and that’s what I was seeking in her art. Not answers or meaning. I’m not expecting her to tell me how to live. Her rhythm met my rhythm. That’s what it feels like to be alive, right here, right now.
“I do think of language as a form of music. I would say that if I have a dominant physical sense as I’m writing, it is ear more than eye. I don’t work from a visual impulse. I work from sound. Maybe that’s because of my drumming . . . or I think the drumming is probably just another symptom of whatever it is that makes me the repetitive, slightly autistic person I suppose I am. I write fast, probably too fast. But in part that’s because I want to catch a rhythm and ride it. I’m not starting from any particular idea I want to articulate; I’m starting with a few words, or a few sounds, even if I don’t know what they mean or where they’re going to go. Sound starts it, and then when I begin to write a sentence, I catch the rhythm, and I try to remain in that . . . here, we are talking about magic again . . . that trance as long as I can. So the process is very much one of improvising on a movement, and only in later drafts do I start to worry about how much sense it’s making.
“Didion has said something similar in interviews: I don’t know what I think until I write it. I’ve heard Don Delillo, another writer I admire, speak of the same thing. He’s very much an improviser on the page. He writes in little fragments and keeps notebooks of fragments, doesn’t even know if they’re going to inhabit the same story. It’s just a sound thing he’s following. That’s true of Didion too. You can just read her and know she’s a writer guided by rhythm. That’s a big reason I’m drawn to her. The fact that she favors this collage form, where sections will end on a breathtaking flourish—that’s a rhythmic impulse, a form of music.
“And the Beatles’ work—it’s the music that most matches my inner rhythm. I don’t know how to speak about it, but I’m sure that’s what it is. I’m not looking for it to transform me or open me up. I’m asking for it to match what I already feel and to reaffirm, Yes, that’s what it feels like to be alive. The music makes me feel more present. It makes me feel more what I already feel.
“The writers I’m most drawn to tend to have a minimalist palette. They tend to write in short, curt sentences—the same way John Lennon usually uses only a couple of chords or George Harrison utilizes the drone of classical Indian music. So it’s minimalist, it’s very rhythmic, it’s very repetitive. Those are the writers I’m attracted to, and it’s certainly true of my own writing.
“I don’t have the technical vocabulary to unlock this, but it seems, when I listen to chant-like music, stripped to its essentials, I am led into darker emotional states. Melancholy. There’s an emotional landscape I’m trying to articulate or stimulate by the choices I’m making, listening to certain kinds of music, reading certain kinds of writing. I’m trying to strum those chords, awaken those resonances. The music doesn’t create the emotion in me. The emotion is already present.
“And I suppose I think melancholy can be a force for good. Somewhere I read that, until you realize that life is a tragedy, you can’t begin to cope with it or understand it. You have to begin from the point of view that life is tragic and we’re all bound up in the same pain. Unless you begin there, you’re not going to be a good person—or a whole person, maybe. It sounds simplistic, stated that baldly, but I do think melancholy can be a good force in that sense. Depression is an isolating emotion, but melancholy is, to my way of thinking, more outward-looking. It says, We are all suffering in the same measure. You’re connected to people. You don’t have to answer for anybody else. The only answer is we’re all in the same boat, so we have to do this together. It’s an expansive world view.”
“Okay Willy, you’re going to have to get down,” Tracy says, lowering the cat onto the floor. He takes Record one from the turntable and slides it into the sleeve. He takes out Record two and puts side four on the platter.
“I suspect most people only listen to ‘Revolution 9’ one time and never listen to it again. I have listened to it over and over—and backwards. The voice intoning ‘Number 9’ really does say ‘Turn me on dead man’ if you spin it backwards. I don’t know if that was deliberate or just an aural accident, but at this point the Beatles were well into the joke—the Paul is Dead business. At the age of thirteen, I wasn’t looking for the deep, buried, subliminal clues—I didn’t necessarily think they were there. But I had come to trust the Beatles. I knew that there was some artistry, some reason for them to do what they were doing, something for me to get. Even if I couldn’t see what it was. So I was one of the people who listened to ‘Revolution 9’ over and over. I can’t say what I got from it other than the realization that the world out there is now on this record. This is a distilled version of what’s happening all around us. And you can’t turn away from it, even when you want to be entertained, even when you’re longing to be distracted.”
Willy is there, bumping his head on the underside of the coffee table. Tracy drops the needle and Paul strums and sings—
Can you take me back where I came from, Brother, can you take me back?
Then: chaos starts tuning up in a piano lounge, two gentlemen talking about a bottle of claret, and Number 9? Number 9? Number 9?
“After a while, maybe just by force of repetition, the piece has come to be oddly musical and moving to me,” Tracy says. “The choir underneath the gunfire. Towards the end, a voice says, Take this, Brother, may it serve you well. Magic again: here, absorb this incantation, may it enlighten you.”
At the end, after Gatling guns and car horns, rioting crowds and the baby talk, number 9, number 9, fanfares, ghost choruses, screaming band saws, after riiiiiiight! riiiiiiight!, and number 9, the falling bombs, the Watusi, the Twist, the invitation to become naked, after the football chants—block that kick, block that kick—Tracy lowers the volume on Ringo’s lullaby, ‘Goodnight.’
“So there we have it,” Tracy says. “The History of Western Civilization.”